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Panel on sex trafficking in Minnesota a step toward new laws, policy

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Sex trafficking panel discussion with Minnesota U.S. House Rep. Dean Phillips
Terry Forliti (right), executive director of Breaking Free, speaks about sex trafficking and sexual violence during a panel discussion with Minnesota DFL U.S. House Rep. Dean Phillips on Saturday at the Minnetonka Community Center.
John Nguyen | MPR News

As the U.S. House of Representatives begins its summer recess, some members of Congress have headed back to their districts to gather information that will be used to craft future laws and policies.

Congressman Dean Phillips held a roundtable discussion about sex trafficking and sexual violence on Saturday in Minnetonka.

The panel included state health and public safety officials, as well as representatives from groups that work with survivors of sex trafficking and sexual assault.

Throughout the talk, panelists shared stories and situations they’ve encountered with survivors — including roadblocks facing those trapped in sex trafficking.

Terry Forliti is the executive director of Breaking Free, a group that works with survivors of sex trafficking. Forliti is a survivor of sex trafficking.

She said the need for basic housing can be an obstacle for those trying to escape.

"At the end of the day, you need to take care of yourself," she told the panel on Saturday, referencing her own past experiences. "And that might mean for me, turning five tricks so I can get a hotel room tonight or sleeping on someone’s couch because it doesn’t come free."

"There’s a lot of systemic changes that we can make" to provide a path for more people to escape sex trafficking and sexual violence, she said.

Other panelists agreed that there should be more resources prioritized for housing, education, sex worker decriminalization and programs dedicated for sexual assault survivors, as a way to curb sex trafficking and sexual violence.

Phillips said that having the conversation is the first step in creating new laws and policies.

"We have a responsibility to listen, to learn, to be educated,” Phillips said. “And that's what today was about. We will now sit down with our team after meetings like this, discuss what we learned, kind of put together a proposition to make improvements and work with the group that we just met with to come up with policy ideas."

Phillips said more discussions are in the works.

Other organizations represented Saturday included the Sexual Violence Center, Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, Missions Inc. Programs and Cornerstone Minnesota.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not include Missions Inc. Programs as one of the organizations represented.